Little Trouble in Big China

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

China- the Revenge

After about a year and a half, I'm back in China. Because of my lack of final exams this term, I'm spending about 3 weeks here. I wasn't planning on blogging, but after the overly eventful past 48 hours since stepping off the plane, I feel obligated to as least keep some sort of documentation.

This will be a miniature version of summer 2007. Instead of 3 months, I have 3 weeks. Thus, everything is condensed. I started in Shanghai like before. Tomorrow, I leave for a two week history tour of China- Luyang, Xi'an, Pinyao, and Beijing. Xi'an and Beijing I went to last time. The others are smaller cities with ancient carved caves and cobblestone streets frozen in time (or so says Lonely Planet).

After coming back on the 30th, I'll probably take a short trip to Nanjing for the sake of nostalgia.

I think I will travel lighter this time around, so I will not bring my laptop. Thus, many of the entries will be posted after my journey ends. I will, however, keep documentation on paper, and of course take many pictures. I might even scan pages from my Moleskine if they are interesting enough.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Reflections of Beijing

*I started this entry almost a year ago while sulking in the courtyard of Far East Youth Hostel after a traumatizing trip to the train station to buy tickets. It started off as a rant against Beijing but turned into something else. I finally started penning it last October and just got around to finishing it this morning


Whenever people ask me where I am from in China, the first thing I tell them is Beijing. Never mind that I only resided there for ~1.5 years of my existence, none of which is still intact in my memory. Never mind that I had actually lived in the southern capital of China when I was there. Never mind that I have really spent the majority of my life in America, and never mind that it is Shanghai, not Beijing that I go to when i return. I was born in Beijing, and I saw myself as Beijingren.

So what was it about Beijing that made me so proud to be from there? It could be that Beijing is the capital of China, automatically setting it apart from the hundreds of impersonal, interchangeable industrial wastelands of China. It could be the vast and glorious history of China preserved in structures as magnificent as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, frozen in time. It could be that my father, whom I deeply respect and greatly admire, hails from Beijing and loves the city as much as I respect and admire him. Or it could be that the Beijing accent, with its rounded, rolling edges, is much more pleasant than the accent or dialect of any other region. no matter, I was proud of being from Beijing and feared greatly that I would hate the city, coming back after almost 20 years.

Yet half a week into my stay, I did hate the city. On Tuesday morning, I woke up with a monstrous throatful of phlegm as a result of the thickest pollution cloud over any city in the world. By Wednesday afternoon, my cell phone had gotten pulled right from my purse at the Pearl Market by an anonymous pickpocket. On Thursday, I got shoved around by vulgar men who refused to wait in line to by train tickets at the train station. In exchange for a swift, unsolicited kick in the back as I left, I learned the Chinese words for "fuck", "bitch", and "cunt" from these mean, midget men in their volleys of catapulted insults.

Perhaps it was not all the fault of Beijing. My throat was more likely a result of a cold, itself a result of travel fatigue, which was finally starting to catch up with me. My cell phone could have gotten stolen anywhere (its precursor was held for ransom in a taxi cab from Dalian). Even the train station fiasco was probably not particular to Beijing. It was the first time that I had actually gone to a train station as opposed to a smaller vendor for tickets, and a "varied" crowd at a train station was somewhat to be expected. Besides, judging from their accents, those mean, midget men were probably workers from elsewhere.

But the damage was done. The string of unfortunate events was enough to completely disillusion me about Beijing. Thursday afternoon, I returned to my hostel almost in tears, clutching my hard-bought way out on Saturday night.

As I sat in the courtyard sulking at my disappointing half-week in Beijing, my luck began to turn. First, I met Henry, a South African English guy with whom I spent the afternoon at the Temple of Heaven. Later, I met Chris, an American studying Kung Fu in Beijing, with whom I strolled around Beihai Garden. I met Micha, a dutch DJ who starred as a security guard in a Chinese sit-com. And I met Olivier, a half French half English boy who played the piano beautifully (Salut Olivier. Franchement, tu me manques terriblement. Envoye-moi un email et dis-moi comment tu vas).

On Friday night, a bunch of us decided to go clubbing together at a joint in the Korean district called Propaganda. Afterwards, I went to back to Houhai with one of my new friends, and we sat by the lake conversing in 3 languages until morning, while the weeping willows stirred small ripples in the neon patterned reflections in the lake.

That night, while dancing feverishly amid the flashing lights and crimson-tinted revolutionary murals, while watching the the sun slowly seep into day behind the pollution clouds, I finally saw something in Beijing. Despite the pollution, despite the rude people, despite my string of bad luck, I found a sort of rare beauty in Beijing that I found nowhere else in China. Perhaps the contrast between the grungy industrial wasteland and my brief moments made them more vivid, but I like to think that in Beijing I felt at home.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Beijing II: Forbidden City

For starters, I realize that this post is about 4 months late. Apologies. Second, the order of this and the Beijing I post should probably have been switched since I went to the Forbidden City first.

That said, let's rewind to
August 12th, 2007
I had arrived in Beijing that morning after a 10 hour train ride during which my new friend Charles from France kindly gave me his seat, comme Commie Comrade Leifeng. I think I spent the rest of the day vegetating in my room to escape from the scorching heat outside. That night, after dinner at a cheap noodle joint in the houtong where my hostel was, I decided to take a stroll to Tiananmen Square.

My hostel (Far East Youth Hostel. Not nice people. More on that later) advertised that it's the closest abode within walking distance to the Forbidden City, so I proceeded on foot. I suppose that technically, they were correct, but it was quite a hike. Tiananmen square was breathtaking at night. All the buildings, both ancient and modern were illuminated with strings of lights. In characteristic Chinese fashion, the square was full of people of all ages taking their evening stroll. Small children and their parents flew metallic kites that caught specks of the ambiance around. Unfortunately, I could not catch good pictures of it on camera, but here is a the best picture of Tiananmen that I got. Took me several tries with my crappy camera to get it not to be blurry.

Later that night, I met up with Phil (whom I had met in Dalian), and we wandered around Houhai. Phil, a far superior nighttime photographer than I, took some pictures of me around the lake. I love wandering around China in pretty dresses, especially when they catch the colors of reflected lights in lakes.

August 13th, 2007
Inspired to the lovely nighttime scene, I decided to explore the Forbidden City during the day. Phil had left that morning, and Charles was with his sister, so once again, I was left with no traveling buddies. Pictures as follows (mostly of small, strange things, with no pictures of me, as a result of me being alone).

Facade in the daytime. Hello Mao (which could get shortened to lomao -> lmao).

The list of languages available for the overpriced audio guide to the Forbidden City. Note lower right corner.

They had little exhibitions in various rooms of the complex. This is apparently the set of geometric models that an emperor (Qianlong, I think) used in his math lessons.

I like acroterion (acroteria plural?). They're called acroterion when they occur on the pediments of Greek temples. I'm assuming these Chinese counterparts have the same name in English.

Flower relief on a wall.

I think these are supposed to be the "lover trees". The sign talked about some legend and how they're permanently embracing each other or something. I took the picture because they made an X.

An exercise in perspective.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"Where are you from?"

Here's something I had written up in July when I was sans easy internet access. It's not much of an entry for something that purports to be a photoblog, but I think it sets the mood for the rest of the entries that I will (soon) post.

"Hey. What's your name?"
"Xiao Xiao. And you?"
"My name is ___. Where are you from?"

In America, my next line would usually be "New Orleans". When prodded further with "where is your family from", I would always respond "China".

In China, things are different. The concept of where a Chinese person is from is threefold. First, there's the place where a person was born. Second, there's the place where a person grew up. But most importantly, is the place where a person's ancestors were from generations and generations back.

For most people, these three locations are one and the same. For some people, two out the three may differ from the other two. For example, a person's family might have relocated to another part of the country, where that person was then born and brought up. In situations like this, that person may identify with either locations.

For me, however, all three locations are different. I was born in Beijing but spend the first year of my life in Nanjing. My ancestors were from Shandong province. That's just the simplified version.

Actually, my ancestors weren't all from Shandong. Three of my grandparents originated from Shandong, but my mother's father is from a village in Zhejiang province, close to Ningbo. Apparently, this is actually quite unusual in China. For all of China's long history, the North and the South have had massive cultural differences. People either identified themselves as from the north or from the south. Very few people are part one, part other.

Where I spend my childhood isn't so straightforward either. As everyone who reads this blog knows, I moved from China to the United States in the middle of elementary school, thus spending roughly half of my youth in China and half in America.

To add to the mix, when I go back to China these days, the city where I stay is not Beijing, not Nanjing, but Shanghai, for that's where my closest relatives in China now live. Out of all the cities in China, I probably know Shanghai the best.

When people ask me where I am from in China, I usually tell them that I was born in Beijing. Sometimes, I tell them that I grew up in Nanjing. If they seem particularly nice, I tell them the whole story, sometimes omitting the detail about America. Other times (usually at retailers where the salespeople can figure out that I am not local), I avoid the trouble and simply walk away.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The end?

Apologies for leaving a cliffhanger (literally... see last post). Since getting back to MIT, I've been too busy to detail the last week of my stay in China. More is coming, I promise.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Beijing I: Great Wall

August 12th, 2007
I entered Beijing the second time almost as ignominiously as I did the first (shrunken, swollen, and sobbing). I had only managed to obtain a hard seat for my overnight train ride when I bought my tickets, but as a result of trying to avoid the long semi-queue to get on the train, I managed to avoid my train entirely. I was able to transfer to the next train that night at no cost except my hard seat. Great. 12 hours of sleeping on the floor of the smoke-filled spit-covered space between compartments.

Fortunately, I got put on the same train as my friend Charles, whom I had met the night before in the hostel bathroom. In an act of valiance dubbed as xue Leifeng by the Chinese passengers next to us, Charles gave me his seat (Salut Charles! Si tu lis cela maintenant, merci beaucoup! Je t'embrasse!). Some time in the morning, Charles got his seat back as a result of someone else vacating theirs.

August 14th, 2007
My friends Nicolas and Pierre arrived that morning. Nico had read on his friend's blog about how the friend got to see a wild part of the Great Wall sans the commercial clatter of Badaling, Simatai, or Mutianyu over in Huairou. Problem is, his friend didn't really detail how he got there, but we decided to go to Huairou and ask around there. Being the adventurous type (Aren't we all more daring in another country?), the 4 of us hopped on a bus and hoped for the best.

The second we got off the best, we were accosted by a mob of Mandarin speaking solicitors. Interestingly enough, they followed me as opposed to the French boys, probably because they (the solicitors) spoke only Chinese. In the end, we arranged for one guy (le conard) to take us to an obscure part of the wall where there would be nobody else.

The drive took over an hour up the winding mountain path. When we got there, the guy demanded more money to wait for us to go explore and to take us back afterward. The final price was 40 yuan each, not too expensive, I suppose, considering the entry fees for the more frequented parts of the wall cost about that much.

Pictures as follows:

When we decided to go with our driver, he told us to hurry into the car because the police was coming. At the wall, I think we were guilty of trespassing.

There was a random-ass ass on the path up the mountain.

View from the sans annoying tourists in the way (!)

Some precipice. Yes, I climbed the great wall in a dress and jelly sandals.

Pierre, Nicolas, et Charles

Hi, Mom, this isn't as steep as it looks.

I think I miss you

Patricia: " Quelle est votre plus grande ambition dans la vie ? "
Le romancier Parvulesco: " Devenir immortel…et puis mourir. "
- A Bout De Souffle